Warning: This webpage deals with active means of managing House Sparrow populations and includes graphic descriptions that some may find disturbing.
Also see HOSP Management, HOSP Photos, History, Accounts of Attacks, Other Brown Birds Sometimes Confused with HOSP, and “Are HOSP Evil?” The information on this webpage should not be taken out of context.
QUICK TIPS: Comply with all applicable laws, use only humane methods, be discreet, offer euthanized birds to a wildlife recovery center.
People who are serious about helping bluebirds survive and thrive attempt to protect them from predators. This is not necessarily because they “like” or “don’t like” one species more than another. House Sparrows (HOSP) have had a devastating impact on native cavity-nesting bird survival and reproduction. HOSP will attack and kill native birds (warning: graphic photos at that link), sometimes cornering and decapitating them in the nestbox and then building their own nest on top of the corpses. They will also destroy eggs and young. A male HOSP that has claimed a nestbox will often not abandon it unless the nestbox is removed/disabled, nesting season ends, or the male is euthanized.
There are a number of passive and active HOSP management methods available. Active methods include removal of nests and eggs, or rendering eggs infertile. Another active method is trapping. Most people are reluctant to discuss how to dispatch captured HOSP. However, the reality is, if you trap them, you have to do something with them.
Relocating HOSP simply relocates the problem. It has been compared to catching a Norway Rat and releasing it in your neighbor’s yard. Some people relocate HOSP and starlings to cities, where HOSP, starlings and pigeons have virtually driven out all other native birds already. However, one should consider the consequent sanitation, disease and other issues. In addition, as populations grow, they spread out beyond the cities. In some states (e.g., MA) it is illegal to relocate any wildlife, and in CT it is illegal to relocate bird without a permit.
KNOW and COMPLY WITH THE LAW: Another option is euthanasia. House Sparrows are a non-native species considered a serious pest, and thus House Sparrow nests, eggs and young and adults are not protected by U.S. federal law (e.g., the Migratory Bird Treaty Act). However, you need to check on any state or local laws that may apply to trapping and dispatching House Sparrows before taking any action. Conservation, wildlife management, and animal control laws are not uniform nationwide. Some areas consider *all* wildlife, native or not, to be protected, and these laws are just as valid as the federal ones. Other states (such as Ohio – 1533.07, Protection afforded nongame birds)/localities have regulations to protect nongame birds, but exempt pest species such as House Sparrows, Starlings and Common Pigeons. People who engage in the business of managing nuisance animals, who perform wildlife management on property belonging to others, or who are licensed often must comply with specific requirements such as obtaining a license/permit. I am not attorney, and can not provide advice on legality. Check on local requirements with your county extension office or animal control officer, and state regulations through your state wildlife management agency if the county extension doesn’t have the answer. If you are really concerned, consult with an attorney qualified to practice in the area where you reside.
Note: This information on this website is specific to the U.S. Laws in other countries vary. For example, in England, under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, all birds and their nests, while in use or being built, are protected and can not be destroyed or the eggs / nestlings interfered with unless certain conditions apply and then only once a license has been granted by the licensing section of the Government Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA / AHVLA).
I do not think any normal person would enjoy euthanizing even animals that are considered pests. However, while it can be extremely difficult and unpleasant to euthanize a HOSP, especially the first time, it may be the most feasible way to effectively reduce the HOSP population for the long-term,i n order to provide safe habitat for native birds. And believe me and others, HOSP will not hesitate to destroy or kill eggs, nestlings and adults of native birds.
Most people find euthanizing HOSP the second worst thing associated with being a bluebird landlord. The worst thing is opening a nestbox to find dead and mangled native bird nestlings or adults.
I respect that some people are unwilling to take such measures, which are often abhorrent to people who care about wildlife. Many who would not hesitate to pull weeds in their garden or euthanize a rat found it in their house struggle with euthanizing a bird, even if it is not protected. However, As Bob Orthwien said, if you do not trap and remove House Sparrows, they will reward your kindness by killing bluebirds. My own thinking on this subject has evolved over time. I do believe people should be fully aware of the consequent risk their nestboxes may pose to native birds if they do not either passively or actively manage HOSP populations. Every individual should make an informed decision, and do what they think is right and within legal and practical limits.
Of course, be ABSOLUTELY sure you have a House Sparrow before euthanizing it. It is a federal offense to kill any native bird without a permit. Obtain a good guide to birds (e.g., Sibley, Peterson) to help you with identification. Also see other brown birds sometimes confused with HOSP. Females are harder to identify. If you are not sure, release the bird.
Use of passive and active House Sparrow control can achieve dramatic increases in successful native bird nestings. However, I am NOT recommending, promoting or advocating that you dispatch House Sparrows, or employ any of the methods listed below. No attempt is being made by this website to dictate which method or under what circumstances HOSP (or starling) euthanasia should be performed. Like me, you have every right to form your own opinions and make your own choices.
However, I do believe that anyone electing to euthanize HOSP should choose the most humane, quick, effective (reliable) method that is available, safe, and acceptable to them. The handling of the bird and the method of dispatch must consistently cause rapid unconsciousness and death, while minimizing pain, discomfort and stress. It must also be safe for the practitioner. This may not be what is the most expedient and hands-off for you. Some people make the mistake of assuming that if it isn’t too distasteful for them, then it must be quick and humane for the birds, which isn’t necessarily the case.
Even though HOSP behavior might be construed as ruthless, they are doing what comes naturally, and can not be held to human (i.e., “humane”) standards. Nothing justifies torturing captured birds.
Some of the methods discussed may be considered inhumane by some people or groups, and may be illegal in some areas, or may require a permit even when conducted on private property by the property owner. For example, in CT, there is a special law that requires a permit before using a chemical such as ether to euthanize an animal.
Most organizations accept euthanasia methods endorsed by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) as being humane. However, many of these options (e.g., barbiturates, inhalant anesthetics, lethal injection) are typically not viable alternatives for individuals. Many people would have real difficulty employing some of the “approved” methods and would find them gruesome.
Whichever method you choose, be discreet. Do not euthanize birds in public places in front of strangers or children..
What to Do with Euthanized Birds: Birds killed without bullets, pellets, chemicals (carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide are acceptable) can be frozen immediately after being euthanized, and donated to a raptor recovery center, a wildlife rehabilitator that handles fox, coyote or fishers, or a falconer (see below). Check with them first to see whether they will accept them. Unfortunately, most will not accept live birds. They can also be left on a fence post for owls or hawks, or may be suitable food for snakes. Otherwise, dead birds can be buried. They can also be used as bait for crabbing (for blue crabs), especially if allowed to thaw and rot for one day first.
Unfortunately, of necessity some of the descriptions below are graphic. Because many people involved in bluebird conservation lack experience euthanizing an animal, they do not have specifics on how to accomplish this difficult task. Some methods should only be performed by a trained individual.
Alternatives to Euthanizing HOSP Yourself
- Wing trimming alternative (non-lethal): Fawzi Emad, a respected bluebird landlord, recommends trimming HOSP wings prior to release so they can not attack bluebirds/enter nestboxes to breed or attack. Emad reports that HOSP tend become docile after trimming and do not attempt to breed. If they survive (they are probably more likely to be captured by predators, which is why some believe wing trimming is inhumane or pointless), the feathers will regrow in about 6 months, so they will miss one nesting season. HOSP have a maximum recorded lifespan of 13 years but probably live far fewer years in the wild. See photo demo and Emad’s website.
- Live Food for Predators:
- Some wildlife recovery centers (e.g., raptor) may accept live HOSP that have been trapped. As noted above, check with them first.
- A falconer may accept HOSP trapped by others. See http://www.raptorsnest.com/ to attempt to contact one in your area.
- People who raise fairly large snakes may take live HOSP.
- Ask Vet/Wildlife Center to Euthanize: You may wish instead to contact your local veterinarian or wildlife center or rehabilitator to see if they would be willing to euthanize the bird for you, or to show you how to do so. However, some rehabilitators prefer not to euthanize, are not set up to do it, or do not have experience with birds. Some veterinarians will not or are prohibited by state regulation from handling wildlife. Where it is allowed, to prevent untrained lay people from botching euthanasia, or from illegally dispatching misidentified birds, perhaps an individual or local bluebirding/wildlife organization could make a donation to veterinarians in the area, and in return the vet will accept trapped HOSP for dispatch.
Methods Generally Considered Humane
- Gas: CO2 cartridges/bottles. AVMA approved for birds. (CO2 from dry ice, antacids or fire extinguishers is not considered acceptable.) CO2 is heavier than air and acts as an anesthetic. Birds have a very high requirement for oxygen and expire quickly when it is not available. CO2 is inexpensive and not flammable or explosive. Very effective, relatively quick, and bloodless.
- See this set of detail instructions with photos: Small Animal Euthanasia at Home
- Small refillable canisters of bottled gas are available for pellet/paint ball guns (valve, hose and tank filled with CO2 are about $50.) A flow meter (that measures flow in cubic feet per minute) and hose along with CO2 can also be purchased or rented from a gas/welding supply company for larger scale euthanization. A release/adapter valve and hose that fit the size of bottle are needed.
- IMPORTANT SAFETY NOTE: Bottles must be kept in the upright position to only allow the gas and not the liquid to escape into the hose. The gas is under a lot of pressure inside the canisters at room temperature. Keep the CO2 canister out of the sun and do not leave it in a hot car. Read about the cautions associated with keeping and storing these canisters before deciding to use them.
- Take a coffee can, or one gallon plastic jug with a hole drilled in the lid that is closed with a cork. Place bird inside, and exhaust CO2 into the container (using the adapter/valve ) filling it completely, quickly close the container, and leave it for 5 minutes. (Detail: Slowly fill the chamber with CO2 at a rate of 20% of the chamber volume per minute for 5 minutes. The bird will become unconscious in 2-3 minutes and will be humanely euthanized in 5 minutes.)
- Put the entire trap/cage in a heavy gauge plastic bag, put the hose in the bag, grip the bag around the opening to hold it closed, turn on the gas, release some air to be replaced with the CO2 and then fill the bag up like a balloon. Hold it tightly closed for 3-5 minutes.
- Use a cooler with a threaded drain. Put the trap/holding cage/mesh bag with bird(s) inside. Screw a tube into the CO2 canister and connect it to the drain, crack the top of the cooler, fill the container with C02 for a couple of minutes, turn it off, and let it sit for 5 minutes.
- Cervical dislocation (severing the spinal cord – basically breaking the neck). AVMA approved for birds. This is considered an effective technique for humanely euthanizing small birds once the proper technique is learned. Note: The bird may remain conscious for a brief period following dislocation, and may convulse prior to death. The sound is disturbing. Methods that require holding the bird as it expires may be more difficult, as it is possible to feel life leaving the body. It is harder than it seems – the first time I attempted it, the bird flew off after I “finished.” Here are several descriptions of methods:
- Hold the bird in your left hand with its neck extended between your index and middle finger, maintaining control of the body with remaining fingers and palm. Lock the clamp on the cervical vertebra, and then do a quick down/up motion (90 degrees down, then 180 degrees up) with the clamp, which severs the spine. Leave the clamp locked on the neck until the bird is definitely dead. This is easy, almost instantaneous, and works well for either starling or HOSP euthanization. (A 7″ straight locking surgical vascular clamp works well. A less expensive alternative is 5.5″ locking clamp pliers. Needle-nosed pliers work, but not as well as locking pliers.)
- Place the thumbnail at the base of the skull and dislocate the neck by hard and quick pressure.
- Control the bird (hold its body and chest against your hand), hold the head and neck between your fingers, extend the neck and yank hard. The head may separate.
- Hyperextend (stretch) the neck, and then quickly rotate or “pop” the neck down-and-away from the body using the thumb and forefingers. It takes skill to pop ones’ arm in such a way as to cleanly break the bird’s neck.
- Gunshot: (AVMA approved for free ranging birds. Bloody, animal may convulse.)
- Twist a mesh bag to restrain the bird, place it on the ground outdoors, and shoot the bird in the head (above the eye, where the brain is located or mid body in the heart) at close range with a pellet pistol/BB gun.
- Blow: Although this method is quick, effective, and minimizes suffering, AVMA only lists a blow as conditionally acceptable for young pigs.
- The bird is placed in a mesh bag with the drawstring pulled tight to close it, or with the end twisted so the bird cannot depart. The arm is swung in a wide circular, windmill motion one or two revolutions, then rapidly swung into a concrete step/brick wall/tree trunk/flat rock. It may be necessary to do this two times (especially with a larger bird like a starling) in rapid succession to ensure effectiveness. The bird expires instantly with little or no blood. Because this method is so quick and effective, it is considered humane by some.
- Nestlings: It may be particularly difficult to deal with nestlings, because they appear so innocent and helpless. Of course when they grow up they would be no different than adult HOSP. I have heard of people removing a nest with hatchlings and placing it on the ground, letting nature take its course.
- Starlings: When euthanzing starlings, a plastic bag should not be used, as their sharp beaks may puncture it, allowing escape.
METHODS THAT MAY BE CONSIDERED INHUMANE OR ILLEGAL (All of the following)
“Humane” is a somewhat subjective term, and not all states have specific laws defining it. Methods that are quick, effective and minimize pain and discomfort are generally considered humane. Dispatch methods that torture or cause prolonged suffering are generally considered inhumane and may also be illegal. (I am assuming some degree of sanity here).
According to the Purple Martin Conservation Association, several prominent organizations involved with animal care issues, including the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the National Wildlife Health Center, the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, and the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, view drowning as an unacceptable method, and the latter two organizations do not endorse thoracic compression. As noted above, some methods considered acceptable by these organizations are typically not viable alternatives for individuals.
Once again, in case it’s not perfectly clear, this website does not endorse or encourage the methods and techniques discussed for dispatching House Sparrows or starlings. Some organizations may object to any or all techniques. It is the responsibility of each individual to decide how best to deal with these non-native species that are so detrimental to native cavity nesting birds. If you have any doubt about the legality of any approaches, consult with your local, state wildlife/animal control, or federal agencies to ensure that no laws or regulations regarding wildlife or animal cruelty and abuse are violated.
Different areas may have different definitions of what constitutes cruelty or abuse. Examples might include acetone, antacids, burning, cyanide, electrocution, freezing a live animal (hypothermia or rapid freezing without anesthesia), immersion in formalin, nicotine, suffocation, strychnine, and any method that involves maiming, torturing, mutilating, beating, depriving of food and water, or caging with another animal that will kill it. As noted above, some organizations consider drowning to be inhumane. Methods that may or may not be considered humane include the following.
- Blow: A sharp blow to the skull. Although this method is quick, effective, and minimizes suffering, the AVMA only lists this method as conditionally acceptable for young pigs. Many organizations would not recommend it, but it is preferred by many.
- The bird is placed in a mesh bag with the drawstring pulled tight to close it, or with the end twisted so the bird can not depart. The arm is swung in a wide circular, windmill motion one or two revolutions, then rapidly swung into a concrete step/brick wall/tree trunk/flat rock. It may be necessary to do this two or three times (especially with a larger bird like a starling) in rapid succession to ensure effectiveness. The bird expires instantly and it is usually bloodless. Because this method is so quick and effective for HOSP, it is considered humane by some. This method is not as effective with starlings, which are larger, and needs to be done REALLY hard, or two-three times in rapid succession.
- Chest/thoracic compression: (Compression of the birds’ chest. Considered useful in the field when other techniques can not be used. AVMA lists this method as conditionally acceptable for birds. It takes 30 seconds or less if done correctly. Many people are too gentle when trying this technique and the bird takes too long to die.)
- The bird is held with palm of the hand facing the person. With the other 4 fingers wrapped around the body, the thumb is brought across the chest to where heart is. The ball of the thumb is used to press FIRMLY against chest (about the amount of force needed to pop a small bubble in plastic bubble wrap, but a little harder).
- Alternatively, the lungs are compressed with a finger on each side of the breast, just below the wings.
- Another description of this method indicates placing the bird in the fist and squeezing the rib cage tightly (from front to back) for 60 seconds.
- Put in small bag, place foot on bird (do not crush it or step hard enough to break bones), compress the chest so it can not breathe, and hold for 1-2 minutes.
- Decapitation: (AVMA lists this method as conditionally acceptable for birds, with a trained person using a sharp guillotine, and recommending plastic cones to restrain the animal and minimize distress, and reduce risk of injury to the operator.) Requires training and skill, but very effective and quick. Violent muscle contractions can occur after decapitation, significant blood, sharp objects pose hazard to individual.
- Drowning🙁AVMA does not consider drowning an acceptable means of euthanasia) It takes 45-60 seconds for a bird to expire when immersed as an individual, or immersing an entire trap. If a person put an entire nestbox in a garbage can or trash bag filled with water without confirming that the captured bird was a HOSP, they may end up killing a native, protected species. Wooden mechanisms on repeating traps will swell up and require adjustment.
- Ether: (AVMA does not consider use of household chemicals an approved method.) Ether in the form of engine starter fluid (diethyl ether), is readily available and effective. It can be explosive, and highly flammable (can not be used near any open flame, even cigarettes), and the smell is sickening. If not used properly it can be hazardous to human health.
- The bird is placed in a plastic bag (held tightly). Several squirts of the car starter are sprayed into the bag, and it is closed. Bird expires in about one minute.
- Multiple HOSP or starlings dispatched using a one gallon plastic jug, with a hole drilled in the top, and corked. The birds are placed in the jug (recorking after each addition), and then the starter fluid is squirted in, it is recorked, and left for 30 minutes.
- Carbon monoxide (CO) (AVMA lists carbon monoxide as conditionally acceptable for birds using bottled gas only.) Using carbon monoxide is effective, but it is hazardous to human health. CO from a vehicle (especially one equipped with a catalytic converter) is much more dilute, and may contain other chemicals that induce stress. Concentrations of as little as 0.4% concentration may be lethal to humans. The exhaust pipe and fumes get very hot and could burn the birds before they expire if not rigged somehow to prevent this. The bird or a live trap containing the birds is placed in a plastic garbage bag, and attached to the exhaust pipe of an idling vehicle with duct tape, for about 30 to 120 seconds (4 minutes to be certain.)
- Dry Ice: As dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) evaporates, it removes the oxygen from the air, and the the bird suffocates. If you touch it with your bare hands, it can freeze and burn the skin within seconds. It can not be stored in a home freezer as it will thaw at normal freezer temperatures.
- Freezing: Freezing a live bird is generally not considered humane because of the amount of time it takes for the bird to die. Although mountaineers say slipping into hypothermia is not a stressful experience, being stuck in a Ziploc bag in a freezer while conscious probably would be.
The information provided here is for informational purposes only and users of the information do so at their own risk. The reader must consult state/federal/local officials to determine the legality or acceptability of any technique in the reader’s locale.
References and More Information:
- AVMA Euthanasia Guidelines: https://www.avma.org/KB/Policies/Pages/Euthanasia-Guidelines.aspx
- PMCA: Controlling House Sparrows and Starlings Humanely
- IWRC: Minimum Standards for Wildlife Rehabilitation, section 7.3
- AWIC (USDA): Animal Euthanasia
- A Guide to the Laws and Treaties of the United States for Protecting Migratory Birds, USFWS
- Wing Trimming as an Alternative
- House Sparrow Control Methods – Active and Passive
Being certain you are right makes communication difficult. Entertain the
possibility that you may be wrong and you can have a discussion instead of an
I guess everyone must decide for himself the lengths to which he will go to protect his Bluebirds.
– Bruce Burdett, NH Bluebird Conspiracy, 2005